Cam­paign to blame China es­ca­lates

White House wants spies to find virus ori­gin, of­fi­cials say

Orlando Sentinel - - Front Page - By Mark Mazzetti, Ju­lian E. Barnes, Ed­ward Wong and Adam Gold­man

Some an­a­lysts are wor­ried that pres­sure from se­nior of­fi­cials could dis­tort as­sess­ments about the virus, weaponized in es­ca­lat­ing bat­tle with China.

WASH­ING­TON — Se­nior Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have pushed U.S. spy agen­cies to hunt for ev­i­dence to sup­port an un­sub­stan­ti­ated the­ory that a gov­ern­ment lab­o­ra­tory in Wuhan, China, was the ori­gin of the coro­n­avirus out­break, ac­cord­ing to cur­rent and for­mer U.S. of­fi­cials. The ef­fort comes as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump es­ca­lates a pub­lic cam­paign to blame China for the pan­demic.

Most in­tel­li­gence agen­cies re­main skep­ti­cal that con­clu­sive ev­i­dence of a link to a lab can be found, and sci­en­tists who have stud­ied the ge­net­ics of the coro­n­avirus say that the over­whelm­ing prob­a­bil­ity is that it leapt from an­i­mal to hu­man in a non-lab­o­ra­tory set­ting, as was the case with HIV, Ebola and SARS.

Trump’s aides and Repub­li­cans in Congress have sought to blame China in part to de­flect crit­i­cism of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s mis­man­age­ment of the cri­sis in the United States, which now has more coro­n­avirus cases than any coun­try. More than 1 mil­lion Amer­i­cans have been in­fected, and more than 62,000 have died.

Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo, a for­mer CIA di­rec­tor and one of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s most vo­cal hard-lin­ers on China, has taken the lead in push­ing U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies for more in­for­ma­tion, ac­cord­ing to cur­rent and for­mer of­fi­cials.

Matthew Pot­tinger, the deputy na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser who re­ported on SARS out­breaks as a jour­nal­ist in China, has pressed in­tel­li­gence agen­cies off and on since Jan­uary to gather in­for­ma­tion that might sup­port any ori­gin the­ory linked to a lab.

And An­thony Rug­giero, the head of the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil’s bureau track­ing weapons of mass de­struc­tion, ex­pressed frus­tra­tion dur­ing one video­con­fer­ence in Jan­uary that the CIA was un­able to get be­hind any the­ory of the out­break’s ori­gin. CIA an­a­lysts re­sponded they sim­ply did not have the ev­i­dence to sup­port any one the­ory with high con­fi­dence at the time, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the con­ver­sa­tion.

The CIA’s judg­ment was based in part on the fact that no signs had emerged that the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment be­lieved the out­break came from a lab. The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has vig­or­ously de­nied that the virus leaked from a lab while push­ing dis­in­for­ma­tion on its ori­gins, in­clud­ing sug­gest­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary cre­ated it.

The State Depart­ment de­clined to an­swer ques­tions about Pom­peo’s role. Spokes­men for the White House and the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil de­clined to com­ment.

In a state­ment re­leased Thurs­day, the Of­fice of the Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence said the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity “will con­tinue to rig­or­ously ex­am­ine emerg­ing in­for­ma­tion and in­tel­li­gence to de­ter­mine whether the out­break be­gan through con­tact with in­fected an­i­mals or if it was the re­sult of an ac­ci­dent at a lab­o­ra­tory in Wuhan.”

In­tel­li­gence agen­cies, the state­ment said, con­cur “with the wide sci­en­tific con­sen­sus that the COVID-19 virus was not man-made or ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied.”

For months, sci­en­tists, spies and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials have wres­tled with vary­ing the­o­ries about how the out­break be­gan, and many agree on the im­por­tance of de­ter­min­ing the gen­e­sis of the pan­demic.

A few vet­eran na­tional se­cu­rity ex­perts have pointed to a his­tory of lab ac­ci­dents in­fect­ing re­searchers to sug­gest it might have hap­pened in this case, but many sci­en­tists have dis­missed such the­o­ries.

“We do not be­lieve any type of lab­o­ra­tory-based sce­nario is plau­si­ble,” five sci­en­tists wrote in a pa­per pub­lished in March in Na­ture Medicine.

Trump has spo­ken pub­licly about the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “very se­ri­ous in­ves­ti­ga­tions” of the virus’s ori­gin and China’s cul­pa­bil­ity. Those in­quiries took on new ur­gency in late March, when in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials pre­sented in­for­ma­tion to the White House that prompted some ca­reer of­fi­cials to re­con­sider the lab the­ory. The pre­cise na­ture of the in­for­ma­tion, based in part on in­ter­cepted com­mu­ni­ca­tions among Chi­nese of­fi­cials, is un­clear.

The cur­rent and for­mer of­fi­cials did not say whether Trump him­self, who has shown lit­tle re­gard for the in­de­pen­dent judg­ments of in­tel­li­gence and law en­force­ment of­fi­cials, has pres­sured the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies. But he does want any in­for­ma­tion sup­port­ing the lab the­ory to set the stage for hold­ing China re­spon­si­ble, ac­cord­ing to two peo­ple fa­mil­iar with his think­ing.

He has ex­pressed in­ter­est in an idea pushed by Michael Pills­bury, an in­for­mal China ad­viser to the White House, that Bei­jing could be sued for dam­ages, with the United States seek­ing $10 mil­lion for ev­ery death.

At a news con­fer­ence this week, Trump said the ad­min­is­tra­tion was dis­cussing a “very sub­stan­tial” repa­ra­tions claim against China — an idea that Bei­jing has al­ready de­nounced.

A for­mer U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial de­scribed se­nior aides’ re­peated em­pha­sis of the lab the­ory as “con­clu­sion shop­ping,” a dis­parag­ing term among an­a­lysts.

GETTY-AFP

A worker ges­tures Thurs­day in Wuhan, China. Sci­en­tists say the coro­n­avirus prob­a­bly did not be­gin in a lab in that city.

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